In the beginning The Rolling Stones wrote primarily radio friendly, youthful rock songs, that everyone could enjoy. They, like The Beatles, were the pop rock of their time, they were also among the first ever rock bands ever, so for a brief moment of time the Beatles and Stones were the only pop rock bands in the world. Something changed in The Rolling Stones creative direction as they entered the seventies, as they began write songs with much darker themes. Most of their songs remained as playful and fun as ever, but there was an inclusion of challenging and even uncomfortable subject matter for the sensitive hearted, and they drifted away from anything resembling pop, and again, like their perpetual rivals The Beatles, their new innovations proved to be highly engrossing art that was accepted by all walks of life all over the globe.
I love many of the early Rolling Stones songs, namely “Ruby Tuesday,” but there is no denying that the Stones stepped their game up in the late sixties and early seventies when they started producing tracks like “Paint It Black,” “Gimmie Shelter” and “Sympathy For The Devil.”
The devil is quiet possibly the most multifaceted character in all fiction. The history of the devil is only partially biblical, and it is never clear in the bible if Lucifer, Satan, and the devil are even the same person, then again nothing in the bible makes much coherent sense. Some people even believe the talking snake is the devil. Our cultural concept of the devil started to take form during the Christian reign over the Roman Empire. The Devil adopted several characteristics from the Hades the Greek god for the dead, most notably his pitchfork, in an effort to make hell seem scarier. When that did not work the Roman Catholic Church began giving the devil anthropomorphic goat characteristics taken from the pagan god Pan, who was a god of music and celebration, in an effort to make people afraid of all Pagan cultures. Keep it classy Christendom. The devil was largely forgotten until American marketing started using the character in jest to advertise how “devilish” or delightfully “sinful” their products were. After movies like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist” we had finally created a fictional character we liked enough to recreate in nearly every mythology and fiction since then. This is the devil The Rolling Stones would be familiar with when they wrote “Sympathy For The Devil,” the same devil we are all familiar with at this point.
I have a very vivid memory from my youth involving “Sympathy For The Devil.” In my grade eleven high school English class our teacher was trying very hard to think outside the box to get us to think about our literature studies differently. To this end, while we were reading William Golding’s “Lord Of The Flies,” she tried to draw parallels between the book’s theme to classic rock songs, Supertramp’s “The Logical Song,” and The Rolling Stones “Sympathy For The Devil.”
The rationale behind how Supertramp’s “Logical Song” was relatable to “Lord Of The Flies” was that ignorance makes you innocent and once you learn about the world you will unavoidably be corrupted. The shoe does not exactly fit because Supertramp are literally lamenting the pain of growing up while Golding was focusing more on the natural of evil of humans, but the connection of growing into something dark kind of work, so whatever, nice try.
“Sympathy For The Devil” on the other hand....
At age sixteen (or seventeen I do not remember) I was well versed in the classic rock styling’s of Supertramp and even more so The Rolling Stones. So I when Mrs. Laird played “Sympathy For The Devil” for us I was visibly happy about it. When she asked the class what was the song “Sympathy For The Devil” was about, my hand shot up and I enthusiastically said “the song is a satire about how the devil is a hard working gentleman and we should probably show him some respect.”
Mrs. Laird rolled her eyes and said, “no Colin, that’s not what it is about.”
She went on to explain that the devil was always present on earth which meant he was actually one of us, and in “Lord Of The Flies” the devil was humans as well. She was wrong on both fronts.
I believe I said bluntly, “no Mrs. Laird, that is not what ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ is about.” We did not argue about it further but I made my opinion clear on the report I had to write on the subject when I stated the connection between the two pieces of art was flimsy and forced, and that The Rolling Stones “Sympathy For The Devil” was absolutely about the devil being a hard working gentlemen worthy of our respect, despite him being evil.
In Mrs. Laird’s defense she did give me a pretty good mark on that assignment even though I completely contradicted her. Also to her credit, good taste in music. Also that lesson stuck with me forever. Also don’t roll your eyes at me when I’m right and you’re wrong.
So anyway The Rolling Stones “Sympathy For The Devil” is a very clever, very funny song about the devil working hard to corrupt souls and how he expects our respect whether or not we like him. The song is additionally fun in presentation because Mick Jagger never just comes out and says “I’m the devil” until the very end when he says;
“Just as every cop is a criminal,
And all the sinners saints,
As heads is tails,
Just call me Lucifer,
'Cause I'm in need of some restraint.”
Further proof to the idea that “Sympathy For The Devil” is about the devil expecting some, you know, sympathy, is that Mick Jagger has said in multiple interviews he was interested in stories told from the devil’s point of view and he wrote this song from the devil’s point of view. Also there are potential parallels between this song and the Russian novel “The Master and The Margarita.” Most notably these lines;
“I stuck around St. Petersburg,
When I saw it was a time for a change,
Killed the czar and his ministers,
Anastasia screamed in vain.”
From what I understand “The Master and Margarita” is about the devil paying a visit to Russia right around the time the communist revolution has taken place and with that I suppose he would have been around in St. Petersuburg and for the killing of the Czar. I do not believe “The Master and Margarita” is from the devil’s point of view though.
Maybe we should have read “The Master and Margarita” in English class....
Most damningly for Mrs. Laird's theory is the final threat by the narrative style. The devil has a human audience attempting to guess his true identify which he completely reveals and then threatens to waste our souls if we do not tread lightly. I have heard other theories about this song that suggest it is an cautionary tale about how evil is everywhere, and while this interpretations holds up pretty good it only really works if you are willing to work without the context of the devil’s forbidding presence.
Some people like to think this song is about god, and as much as I approve of people pointing out just how diabolically evil the god of the bible is, it does not work for “Sympathy For The Devil.”
As we look over the many different interpretation of the devil we are forced to realize that most of those incarnations are not truly evil. The devil behaviors more like Loki, playing tricks on us and seeing how we fare. The devil is more like Starscream from the Transformers, as in he is a constant nuisance, antagonizing us, ruining our good times. Rarely is the devil a force of destruction and death, usually he is a goofy trouble maker, and The Rolling Stones represent that less threatening more playful version of the prince of darkness very well.
“Sympathy For The Devil” came out in 1968 and captured what the devil’s personality might be like if he were in fact real. It was the perfect depiction of the character then and still is now. Like most classic rock “Sympathy For The Devil” is timeless.
- King of Braves